Archive for the ‘postage stamps’ category

This one’s for the bird (stamp)!

23 July 2011

One of the problems of Indian Philately is that the “story” behind a postage stamp is quite opaque. The postal department does not oblige philatelists by reliable documentation and transparent procedures. I was writing an article on “Birds on Indian Stamps” for Aasheesh Pittie, editor of the Indian Birds and I found it difficult to find any information about bird stamps. I was constrained to publish the article, though I felt that I had inadequate information and could find no way of getting more. Those who missed reading the article and would like to peruse it may find it here.

Rather surprisingly, some people liked the article, despite it being just a set of dry facts and observations on them, and wrote to tell me so. Two of the responses were of very great interest to me.

The first email was from Mr Zafar Futehally, one of our doyens of bird-watching. He appreciated the article, saying that it enthused him so much that he wished he were young again so that he could start collecting bird stamps. That warmed the cockles of my heart.

A young Peter Jackson poses in front of the Khumbu icefall during the 1953 climbing season. (Image copyrighted by Peter Jackson)

The other email was from Mr Peter Jackson, a retired gentleman from England. Mr Jackson began his career as a reporter for Reuters and made his mark reporting for John Hunt‘s Everest Expedition which climbed Everest for the first time in 1953. He went on to become a good wildlife photographer and a dedicated conservationist. He is renowned for his work on wild cats.  I was quite flattered to receive an email of appreciation from him too.

Mr Jackson mentioned that one of the stamps that was shown in the article was based on his image. Mr Jackson referred to a definitive stamp of India, a 50 paise stamp issued in 1975 showing a flying bird in blue. The List of Stamps (1852-2007), published by the Department of Posts, describes it as “Flying Crane”. One of the leading bird stamp websites “” lists the stamp as Demoiselle Crane (Grus virgo) – perhaps because a Demoiselle best seemed to fit the image. The finer details of the image on the stamp are indistinct, as the stamp is itself less than an inch in height or width.

A small postage stamp. almost square shwing a flying bird coming in to land with legs outstretced below, with denomination 50p, and the words "India" in English and the Hindi word "Bharat" in Devanagari script

1975 definitive stamp of denomination 50p

Mr Jackson pointed out that the image was his and it was taken in Bharatpur and was of the Intermediate Egret (Mesophoyx intermedia), not a Demoiselle Crane. He was kind enough to send me the original image which is displayed in this article. He had photographed it among the many birds nesting in Keoladeo Ghana way back in the 1960s when he lived in India.

Mr Peter Jackson's original image upon which the stamp is based. (Image copyrighted by Peter Jackson)

In his own words, he describes how the image found its way on the stamp :

“I was surprised when I found my photo on stamps. I couldn’t make out how the post got it. Sometime later one of my daughters was lunching with an artist friend. He said that I had sent him the photo for art work. He recommended it to the post and told them they could use it on a stamp if they got my permission. But they failed to contact me and just went ahead. Of course, I was pleased to see the photo on a stamp, but I never got any thanks from the post. It served for 10 years.”

Mr Jackson was unfortunate in that he got no gratitude from the Indian Post, but he was lucky in that the stamp his image adorned was a definitive and not a commemorative stamp.

Mr Jackson’s image on the definitive has adorned millions of letters, parcels and postcards for more than a decade, thereby giving his image exposure to an audience many times larger than ever possible by other means of the time.

We can only thank Mr. Jackson for taking the beautiful image so that it could find its way onto the postage stamp. It is important to know that this contribution on his part is very small compared to the sterling work he has done in his lifetime for Indian Wildlife. A close friend of Kailash Sankhala, he joined the World Wildlife Fund  (today Worldwide Fund for Nature) in 1970. When WWF raised over a million pounds internationally to save the tiger,   he was sent to India to help purchase the equipment paid for by WWF for the setting up of Project Tiger. Later, he became an independent writer on wildlife. Mr. Jackson was appointed as head of the defunct Cat Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN in 1983 and headed it for 17 years converting it into a close-knit team of over 200 cat scientists, including many Indians. He created the CatSG magazine about the activities of the Cat Specialist group in 1984 and edited it till he retired in 2000. He still contributes world cat news to the magazine.  During his time as chairman, Mr. Jackson travelled around the world to help support cats, including many visits to India.

Thank you Mr Jackson for your life work’s  in preserving India’s wildlife in general and our country’s big cats in particular.

In Wikipedia tradition, I present you with a barnstar, in this case, the Fauna barnstar!

THE SPOTTED OWLET (Athene brama) – Natural history in verse!

2 January 2011


Ashwin and Aditi Baindur


Spotted Owlet (Artist: Aditi Baindur)


When I go for an evening walk
along the tree-lined CME street,
there is bound to be an interesting creature
or two that I am sure to meet.

Sometime its a palm civet
or nightjar with chuff chuff call
mostly its just a little owlet,
grey-spotted but half foot tall.

Not just in Pune is he found
In South Asia wherever he can be
From sunny Mekran to rainy Indo-China
and Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

From sunny Mekran to rainy Indo-China, and from Kashmir to Kanyakumari

People in our North call him chughad,
Khussatia or even oodloo.
In Bengal he is called Kuture pencha
And in Sindh he is known as Chibiru.

Some foolish people think him a bad omen;
he is named after wise Athene.
Bobs his head to Brahma for his name,
in mythology he carries Laxmi.

The Owl (Ulooka in Sanskrit), seen at Laxmi's feet, is the traditional vehicle of Goddess Laxmi. (Click image to reach source. Reproduced under fair use).

An owlet pair are always found
on the signpost of 253B,
from where they are perched in shadow
but the lighted path they can see.

On this road they aren’t quite alone,
I find them on ‘most any tree,
every fifty yards or outside each garage.
We indeed have an owly colony!

The little ones of the field and garden
are welcome guests to their feast –
mice, centipedes, insects, beetles
even snakes and scorpions they eat.

Spotted Owlet and prey! (Owl Image:J.M. Garg, on Wikimedia Commons)

Their house is in in a little shelf
between the rafters and my bungalow roof.
From outside there is very little sign,
some pellets on the floor my only proof

that a quaint little family dwells in my bungalow
quietly along with me
and helps look after my interests
by eating small rodentry.

November to April is their special time,
to start a little family
beginning with four white spherical eggs
the fledgelings away in weeks three.

Fledgeling Spotted Owlets with squirrel (© Jagdeep Rajput /

A noisier pair I’m yet to find
so bold and confident are they,
chirruk chirruk they screech at dawn
and chirwak chirwak ending day.

I like the owlets very very much
though they watch me very closely!
Now he bobs his head, she turns hers around.
I’m sure they also like me!


  • Text of poem under Creative Commons 3.0 Unported.
  • Image credits – see individual images.
  • This poem appeared on CME Weekly on 25 Dec 2010. Copyright rests with author.
  • Information: Spotted Owlet. (2010, December 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:19, January 2, 2011, from

Image: J.M. Garg (from Wikimedia Commons)

The Good Mother (55 Fiction)

17 April 2010

The good mother!

The mother crouched over her eggs but the rocks and earth from the overhung crushed her and her progeny none the less. Capricious fortune! Her head only four inches from her eggs,  she was dubbed “Egg seizer” millenia later despite her supreme sacrifice. Seven decades of ignominy till her loving nature came to light.

This is the story of “Oviraptor “. Read more about it here.

A museum exhibit - Oviraptor guards her eggs.

This Azerbaijan stamp of 1994 reflects the previous view of Oviraptor as an egg thief.

Image credits. Click image to reach the source page.

Orbs of flame

15 April 2010

Off on a comet – Part II (Find Part I here)

Giovanni Battista Donati was an Italian astronomer who, on Aug. 5, 1864, was first to observe the spectrum of a comet (Comet 1864 II) now named after him. This observation indicated correctly that comet tails contain luminous gas and do not shine merely by reflected sunlight. Note the Big Dipper to the right. The bright star near the comet's head is Arcturus in the constellation Bootes.

", dry exhalations gathered and occasionally burst into flame..." - Aristotle

"..were hot, dry exhalations which gathered and occasionally burst into flame..." - Aristotle

Of all heavenly phenomena, none have fascinated man more than the appearance of comets in the sky. These objects behaved (to the ancients) so strangely and will fully that they were considered signs from Gods to mortals on Earth.

What were the gods trying to say? Some cultures read the message by the images that they saw upon looking at the comet. For example, the tail of the comet gave it the appearance of the head of a woman, with long flowing hair behind her. This sorrowful symbol of mourning was understood to mean the gods that had sent the comet to earth were displeased. There are many such myths which have emerged over the millenia in many cultures, both oriental and occidental.

However, till the advent of  the telescope and the “Thinking Man” of Renaissance times, mankind had no way to understand what exactly a comet was composed of.

Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, who studied under Plato and taught Alexander the Great, in his work “Meteorology“,  speaks across two millenia to us :

We know that the dry and warm exhalation is the outermost part of the terrestrial world which falls below the circular motion. It, and a great part of the air that is continuous with it below, is carried round the earth by the motion of the circular revolution. In the course of this motion it often ignites wherever it may happen to be of the right consistency, and this we maintain to be the cause of the ‘shooting’ of scattered ‘stars’.

We may say, then, that a comet is formed when the upper motion introduces into a gathering of this kind a fiery principle not of such excessive strength as to burn up much of the material quickly, nor so weak as soon to be extinguished, but stronger and capable of burning up much material, and when exhalation of the right consistency rises from below and meets it.

This was completely in harmony with Aristotle’s view of the “Geocentric Universe“, i.e. the stars and the Sun revolved around the Earth. He argued that they could not be heavenly bodies as they did not move across the sky with the stars. Hence, to suit his world-view, he postulated them as creatures of the atmosphere.

Types of cometary forms, illustrations from Johannes Hevelius' Cometographia (Danzig, 1668)

An ancient bust of Seneca the Younger in the Antikensammlung, Berlin.

Aristotle’s views were questioned even in antiquity. The Roman Stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, more popularly known as Seneca the Younger, writes in “Natural Questions VII“, his only opus on Natural History, that :

Are they a concentration of flame as our
vision avers, and as the very light that streams from
them, 1 and the heat that descends from them suggest ?

6  Or are their orbs not of flame, but, as it were, solid
bodies of earth that glide through tracts of fire,
and having no light of their own draw thence
their brightness and heat ? That is an opinion that
has been held by great men who have believed
the stars to be compact of hard material, and to be
nourished by fire that is not their own. Flame

by itself, they argue, would be dissipated and would
have nothing to hold or to be held by. If it were
merely massed and not attached to a solid body,
the universe would assuredly long since have
scattered it in its impetuous whirl…

Seneca held that comets moved regularly through the sky and were undisturbed by the wind, behavior more typical of celestial than atmospheric phenomena. While he conceded that the other planets do not appear outside the Zodiac, he saw no reason that a planet-like object could not move through any part of the sky.

Aristotle’s views drowned out voices like Seneca’s and were pre-eminent through the mighty march of centuries till the dawn of the Renaissance.

This drawing of the comet of 1577 by a Turkish astronomer appeared in the book "Tarcuma-I Cifr al-Cami" by Mohammed b. Kamaladdin written in the 16th century. The yellow Moon, stars and comet are shown against a light blue sky.

In 1577, a bright comet was visible in the sky for several months. The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe used measurements of the comet’s position taken by himself and other, geographically separated, observers to determine that the comet had no measurable parallax. Within the precision of the measurements, this implied the comet must be at least four times more distant from the earth than the moon. This was the first proof that comets were extra-terrestrial creatures and not of the Earth itself. Hence they had to be “real’ bodies, not atmospheric apparitions as propounded by Aristotle.

A curious case. Halley's Comet and portrait on a Grenada stamp, but the drawing is by the great Tycho Brahe himself. The caption of the stamp and that of another stamp in the series have been exchanged. It should read: “Tycho Brahe’s notes and sketch—Comet of 1577."

The next person to comment on comets was none other than the great natural philosopher and mathematician, Isaac Newton himself. He described comets as compact and durable solid bodies moving in oblique orbits, and their tails as thin streams of vapor emitted by their nuclei, ignited or heated by the sun. Newton suspected that comets were the origin of the life-supporting component of air. Newton also believed that the vapors given off by comets might replenish the planets’ supplies of water (which was gradually being converted into soil by the growth and decay of plants), and the sun’s supply of fuel.

Newton was right in many ways. Comets were solid objects trailing vapour emitted by nuclei emitted because of solar heating. Comets are also considered to be a source of extra-terrestrial water in the Solar Sytem. However they did not add to the sun’s store of nuclear fuel.

Newton made another great contribution to cometary science with his treatise Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.  In book 3, “De mundi systemate” (On the system of the world) , he describes the celestial mechanics of cometary orbits.

Sir Isaac Newton's depiction of the orbit of the Comet of 1680, fit to a parabola. (From ''The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy''. London: Benjamin Motte, 1729. )

Newton was approached by Edmond Halley for guidance in the understanding of celestial mechanics. Newton sent him a document which, though untitled in reality, is today known under the name of “De motu corporum in gyrum (Latin: “On the motion of bodies in an orbit”). Using Newton’s mathematical principles, Edmond Halley deduced that the great comets of 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 were one and the same. In 1705,  Halley published “Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae”, in which he stated his belief that the comet sightings were of the same comet. He further predicted that it would return in 1758. Halley did not live to witness the comet’s return, but when it did, the comet became generally known as Halley’s Comet.

Immanuel Kant thought not just about reason but cometary science too.

In 1755, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is not very widely known for his astronomical studies, hypothesized that comets are composed of some volatile substance, whose vaporization gives rise to their brilliant displays near perihelion. In his work  “Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels” (English: Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven), Kant writes :

Their atmosphere and tail, which expand through the heat of their close approach to the sun, are only consequences of the eccentricity, although they have always served in times of ignorance as uncommon images of horror, announcing to the common folk imaginary destinies….

He was right as regards the nature of the atmosphere and tail – it is solar radiation that causes the volatile materials within a comet to vaporize and stream out of the nucleus, carrying dust away with them. This stream of dust and gas forms a huge, extremely tenuous atmosphere around the comet called the “coma”, and the force exerted on the coma by the Sun’s radiation pressure and solar wind cause an enormous “tail” to form, which points away from the sun.

The external parts of a comet

However Kant’s theory which would have required comets to comprise mainly of volatile material were overshadowed, not by another philosopher’s views but by events which drew another, partially correct explanation of the the nature of a comet’s substance.

In 1872, a major meteor shower occurred from the orbit of Comet Biela, which had been observed to split into two pieces during its visit in 1846, and was never seen again after 1852. Earlier, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli computed the orbit of the Perseid meteors over the period 1864–1866. Based on orbital similarities, he correctly hypothesized that the Perseid meteors were nothing but fragments of Comet Swift-Tuttle. This not only linked comets and meteor showers but also gave rise to the “gravel bank” model of comet structure, according to which comets consist of loose piles of small rocky objects, coated with an icy layer. That is, it is mostly hard matter but with some ice and other volatile material.

The annual Perseid meteor showers are created by the dust plumes of Comet Swift-Tuttle which visited Earth in 1992 and next comes in 2126.

By the middle of the twentieth century, this view of a comet’s composition suffered from a number of shortcomings. For example, how could a body, that contained only a little ice,  continue to put on a brilliant display of evaporating vapor after several perihelion passages around the Sun.

In 1950, Fred Lawrence Whipple proposed that rather than being rocky objects containing some ice, comets were icy objects containing some dust and rock. So matters stood till the turn of the Twentieth Century when, to answer these and other such questions, NASA began launching space missions to intercept comets and interact with them.

To learn about the trysts of spacecraft with comets, wait for “Of Deep Space and Stardust” (part III of “Off on a Comet”).

Sources :

  • “Meteorology” by Aristotle. (Read the English translation of Book 1 here.)
  • “Natural Questions” by Seneca the Younger. (Read the English translation of Book VII here.)
  • “Universal Natural History and Theory of the  Heavens” by Immanuel Kant (Read Part II, Section 3 here.)

Images : Click the image to reach the source.

  • Wikimedia Commons – Comet Donati (p.d.), Aristotle (cc sa 3.0), Seneca (cc sa 3.0),  Newton’s diagram (p.d.), Kant postage stamp (p.d.), Perseids meteor shower (cc sa 3.0),
  • Hevelius’ comets : NASA/JPL.
  • Blue Turkish Comet : copyright – Erol Pakin.
  • Cometary structure : copyright –
  • Brahe/Halley stamp : copyright: -Dan from